Update on Whitstable's battle to prevent Network Rail destruction of another wildlife corridor (17.5.12)
This is the situation right now as far as local people in Whitstable are concerned: literally hundreds of residents are incensed that Network Rail is still planning to go ahead on 28th May with the tree felling operations on the Cromwell Road embankment - during the bird breeding season - and when the company has been advised by all the relevant wildlife agencies not to do so. There is a high risk that breeding birds, their eggs and nests will be disturbed/destroyed/damaged in this operation, the police are standing by, the RSPB is standing by, and local people are standing by. Forget the cursory nest studies done by their contractor, we have done our own, and Network Rail should be made very aware of that.
The company can be sensible and postpone these works until, at the very least, August, when the bird breeding season is over. However, if they decide not to do so they are choosing a high risk strategy for themselves in terms of breaking the law - since it is a certainty that this felling cannot take place without disturbing nests of breeding birds as defined by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The company is creating catastrophic publicity for itself, and with regards to the latter, I would like to remind them that there is an article being published in the Sunday Telegraph this very weekend about our campaign. More people are contacting us daily, including the media, so Network Rail should know that we will not go away, neither will we stand by and watch this wildlife corridor be destroyed by their contractor's chainsaws on 28th May - especially since there is no special license in place for this work to be undertaken as an emergency public safety issue.
One Sunday in April 2012, Network Rail dropped a leaflet through the letterboxes of a few people living in houses alongside the railway track advising that some vegetation work was to be undertaken by the track. The following day, Network Rail contractors turned up with chainsaws and woodchippers to start felling the trees, exactly as happened months ago in Grange Park
Fortunately, the good people of Whitstable were up and about, had had their first cup of coffee of the day and called the Police, reporting the contractors for breaching the wildlife act. Tree felling was halted pending a meeting between representatives of Whitstable and Network Rail.
So far as I can understand, the local MP (Julian Brazier, Con.) has always been far too busy to get involved - so different from our local MP (David Burrowes, Con.) who was incredibly active on our behalf.
As a result of research carried out by the Whitstable protesters, I helped with background information based on our experience and was invited by Julie Wassmer, the scriptwriter and author who was the de-facto leader of the protest to attend their meeting. This is a very brief, personal report of that eventual two-hour meeting.
Network Rail initially attempted unilaterally to organise an early meeting and invited local residents to attend. When they realised that the meeting was going to be boycotted, Network Rail agreed to cooperate in arranging a meeting. Unfortunately, the room chosen for the meeting proved woefully inadequate for the number of people who did try to attend. The legal capacity of the ground-floor room was 60 persons, people were left standing in the corridor, out in the garden and leaning through the windows. Predictably, these people were not able to see, hear or participate effectively in Network Rail's presentation and the subsequent Q&A session.
Network Rail had been asked to provide details of the presentation in advance. This they refused to do, on the basis that the details were very complicated and could only be explained at a face-to-face meeting. The upshot of this was that none of the protesters had any opportunity to assess or evaluate any of this “very complicated” material. Network Rail also demanded that the meeting not be filmed.
The meeting itself took the form by a brief introduction by two Whitstable protesters followed by presentations by a series of representatives from Network Rail of the “very complicated” justification of the tree felling. During this session, questions and requests for clarification were not allowed since there would be an opportunity for Questions later.
Since Network Rail refused to provide a copy of their presentation, it is not possible to give details of it here. Suffice to say, it was fairly similar to the various justifications given at Grange Park - lots of detail, most of it incomprehensible and quite possibly irrelevant and all very one-sided. In summary, the justification was that large trees absorbed all the water, drying out the embankment and making it unstable and therefore unsafe. Network Rail claimed that an Environmental Impact Survey had been undertaken by unnamed persons of indeterminate expertise but would not be provided.
One thing that I thought was of interest was that one of the presenters (Simon someone?) claimed that there was no problem with large trees away from the toe of the embankment; when I said that this was categorically NOT what we were told in Grange Park, I was told that no questions were allowed at this stage but that the situation in Grange Park was different.
Network Rail were repeatedly told that their presentation was incomprehensible, unconvincing, failed to address resident's concerns and was running on too long. They reluctantly agreed to the meeting running for an extra half-hour in order to allow sufficient time for questions.
As the meeting was not recorded and I stupidly failed to take notes, I can't provide much detail on the questions or Network Rail's answers.
The main areas of questioning related to
nesting birds (there were two experienced environmentalists present for Whitstable, it was unclear what if any expertise was utilised by Network Rail)
lack of consultation (Network Rail don't consult, they state their intentions)
whether Network Rail needed to cut down all the trees (it is easier to cut down everything than make an informed, environmentally friendly judgement)
whether Network Rail would compensate people for a reduction in the value of their houses (they will not do so)
For my part, I asked three questions:
would Network Rail make the PowerPoint presentation available? (No, they would not)
in which case, why would Network Rail not make it available? (because that is company policy - why is it company policy? - because it is company policy!
David Higgins (Chief Executive Officer of Network Rail) wrote to David Burrowes (local MP for Grange Park) in early June 2011, apparently apologising for the mistakes made in previous months and confirming that going forward Network Rail would learn from the incident in Grange Park and adapt their community engagement and consultation:
1. had I and everybody else completely misunderstood David Higgins' message?
2. had David Higgins failed to convey this message to staff at Network Rail?
3. had Network Rail's staff simply chosen to ignore David Higgins' message?
As the meeting drew to a close, the senior representative from Network Rail announced that notices would be going out the following day to to advise that work on cutting down the trees would commence two weeks later - so much for consultation!
At the end of the meeting, The Rev. Paul who was chairing the meeting asked whether Network Rail was prepared to delay the cutting down of trees - this was not answered. He also asked whether Network Rail would be prepared to have a further meeting - there didn't really seem to be much point, did there? I believe that there was further, off-line discussion at the end of the meeting but don't know whether anything worthwhile was offered or agreed then.
All in all, a predictably unsatisfactory and thoroughly disappointing meeting suggesting that Network Rail continue to behave in their arrogant, high-handed, secretive, uncompromising, environmentally unfriendly way around the country, despite what David Higgins claimed to have learnt at Grange Park.
Grange Park resident